One of the most frequent statements I began to hear when I started to attend Moms Guide Abu Dhabi events is, “I’ve never met an Emirati before.” At first, I didn’t give this much thought but soon enough I had analysed it backwards-forwards-inside out, and felt that perhaps expats would be interested in hearing an Emirati voice on this topic.
The truth is, I have a ton of expat friends – probably even more than Emirati friends (discounting family of course). But these expat friends are “non-transient expats”, meaning they have either grown up here or have lived here so long that they consider this home. They usually have direct and extended families close by, and a large social support system of their own. I met most of them in school and though many left for college, the majority returned to the UAE and have settled in for the long run.
But when I joined Moms Guide, I started to meet a different kind of expat, the “short-term expat”. “Short-term expats” are only here for a few years to gain new experiences, to save for a home or college fund, or simply because the opportunity arose. I admire them for their courage and strength and have a great deal of empathy for the challenges they face living in a country with different value and tradition systems. I myself experienced isolation, loneliness, and culture shock when I attended university in the U.S. (go Badgers!). Most of all, I sympathise with an expat’s sparse social support system when they leave their families and friends back home. This is especially difficult when they first move here, and especially so when they have a new baby. This is why I believe groups such as Moms Guide Meetup, Abu Dhabi Mums, Abu Dhabi Women’s Group, and Real Housewives of Abu Dhabi are so important in a country like the UAE – and the women who run these groups deserve much recognition for their efforts in supporting other expats.
But why is it so difficult for “short-term expats” to meet Emiratis? I can only speak for myself and cannot make claims about all Emiratis. In my case, I find it difficult to repeatedly make friends with someone who is going to, within a couple of years, leave the country. It’s different for the expat who comes over here, makes some new friends, then returns to their home where people are relatively constant. To the expat who leaves, the Emirati is one friend who was a part of their lives for a couple of years. For the Emiratis who live here, you are the 10th, 20th, 30th friend who has come and gone. I’m sure you can understand how the cycle of making and losing a friend is magnified for locals in a transient country like the UAE, and the reason why, in my case at least, I am wary of becoming attached to someone who I know will leave soon.
Another reason I don’t make many new expat friends is because I have a massive amount of family obligations that demand a lot of my spare time. I have 11 uncles and aunts and close to 100 (yes, that’s a deliberate third digit) first cousins. Our culture strongly encourages us to visit anyone who is sick, has returned from traveling, has given birth, has gotten married, has suffered a loss, or just because they are an elder. And repeat the same routine for in-laws. Besides the fact that family demands much of my time, they also fulfill much of my support needs. In the words of a dear expat friend, “if something happens and you need help, I’m number 34 on your list of people to call.” And this is 100% true, I can call about 15 people in my direct family for help, advice, support (or just because I’m feeling low) before I need to call a friend – any friend.
But there’s no denying that there are cultural reasons which also play a role in Emirati-expat friendships. I had a chat with my Emirati friends on the topic and many attributed the divide to different lifestyles and cultural sensitivities. For example, expats attend events at places that some Emiratis (especially female Emiratis) will not visit – like spots that serve alcohol or don’t support privacy and segregation. Also, sometimes conversations can get pretty culturally insensitive, like when some discuss late-night drunken escapades. A few of my friends even expressed discomfort by attire choice. I know many of my own childhood expat friends choose to dress more modestly when they visit me or we go out together. One Emirati friend has simply never had the opportunity to make her own expat friends. Growing up, she attended a public school where the majority of students were Emirati. This was followed by an all-Emirati university experience, and now her work environment is predominantly Emirati.
The issue is probably much more complex than I can write about in one post. There will, undoubtedly, be expats who look down at Emiratis and vice versa, but it has been my experience that these people are the minority. Most are curious about others and are open to the adventures and growth opportunities which come with multicultural friendships. So, if you do want to make Emirati friends here are a few suggestions:
1. Make the first move: say hello in the school courtyard and suggest a play date for your children, or ask your colleague if she would like to join you for lunch or the gym. Perhaps you can start a book group with your colleagues and their friends.
2. Be culturally sensitive and understanding: learn a few Arabic words and phrases, dress modestly when you are with Emiratis, respect segregation, don’t serve alcohol or go somewhere that serves alcohol. Some Emiratis may not mind these things but it’s best to err on the side of conservatism.
3. Be curious without being nosy: just like everyone else, we love to talk about ourselves but don’t want to feel like we are on display at the zoo or that we are being judged. We also tend to be private about our personal lives in general, so keep it light and entertaining.
4. Suggest a public location: some Emiratis may be apprehensive about visiting your home. They know what to expect at a cafe, but may not feel so confident about your home.
5. Visit them when they are sick, have had a baby, or have returned from their travels. When they invite you to their family weddings, go!
6. Consider giving your new friend a gift. Giving gifts is a big part of our culture and the idea is to bring joy to others. It need not be something elaborate or expensive, it truly is the thought that counts. My favourite gifts are usually home baked goodies or pictures of us together. That extra bit of thoughtfulness makes the world of difference.
And don’t forget, there is no better way to make the world a better place than to cultivate multicultural friendships early in life!